Sunday, January 9, 2011

Baptism of our Lord
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

The voice of Jehovah is powerful; The voice of Jehovah is full of majesty.

We spent New Year's weekend at the beach. We watched movies, did a puzzle, played games, and ate meals together. We visited the aquarium, shopped in the souvenir shops, walked on the beach, and played a round of miniature golf. The kids and I even went swimming in the resort's outdoor heated pool! It was a wonderful time with family; I don't think I've laughed so much in a long time.

There is a stretch of road along the bay in Corpus Christi that is lined with beautiful, and surely expensive, houses. I convinced Bruce we should go house hunting: surely something is for sale along that route? Of course, there's no way we would be able to purchase anything we found on that road; one house, a lovely one story with five bedrooms overlooking the bay is just under a million dollars. Even the houses that did not have a direct view of the Bay are well over $300,000. But it sure was fun looking.

Unfortunately, when we got to the end of the road, we didn't know which way to go. I was only vaguely familiar with the landscape, and sent Bruce down the wrong road. We thought we would eventually get to the highway, but we didn't realize we were on a causeway that ended at the back of a military base with a permanently locked gate. The only way to go from there was to backtrack. We eventually found the right road and continued our adventure.

Now, we weren't really at the end of the road, we were simply blocked from going any further. We could have even gone on the base with our own military identifications, but the gate was locked, so the road was a dead-end. How disappointing it would have been if we had wanted to be on the base! We would have had to drive all the way around the small body of water to the front gates.

What always strikes me as amazing when I'm at the beach is how limitless the water seems to be. Corpus Christi is on the Gulf of Mexico, and I know that if I traveled far enough, I would find land again. But as we look at the horizon from the beach, the water seems endless. We know, thanks to centuries of adventurers mapping the globe and those who have made it possible to see the earth from the sky, that there is land at the other end.

But how must it have been for those who lived in Jesus' day? Yes, there were those who traveled by boat, and who knows how far they might have gotten, but most people barely knew what was happening beyond their small villages. They might travel to bigger towns for worship or festivals, but even then travel was limited. Some people, rarities, might have told stories of being in far off lands, but to the average person those were just stories. Lands End England is called that because the people thought that was the very end of the land. They didn't know the earth was round. They didn't know that there were continents on the other side. They didn't know what existed beyond the coastlines.

To them, the coastlands represented the end of their known world and the beginning of the great unknown. It represented the world beyond their world. The realms of kings were very small. The great cultures of the past were relatively limited. The Roman Empire seemingly ruled the world, and yet it was about the same size geographically as the United States and despite its power in it's world, it had little or no effect on the rest of the earth. Even the gods were limited: most people worshipped personal gods that were only able to influence the immediate area. Why worship a god that can affect unknown people in unknown places, especially if those people might be an enemy? Yet, the promise in the Servant's song is that God will send someone who will have an impact on the entire world: even the coastlands wait for his teaching.

This servant will reach far beyond our expectations. He will be specially loved by God. He will be remarkable. But even more than that: He is the promise.

As we look back into the history of God's people, the covenants were promises of land, power, and perpetuity. He also promised salvation and forgiveness. In the passage from Isaiah, we see that the servant is given as a covenant for the people. Though some understand the servant to be Israel herself, we know that this was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Israel may have been a sign of the covenant, but Jesus is the covenant. The signs are the things He would do: open the eyes of the blind, set the prisoners free. Just as Israel was meant to be a light for the nations, Jesus is a light for the entire world.

The beginning of the fulfillment was seen at the manger, as Christ is born into the world and made one of us. But for thirty years we hear little about His life. A few stories linger about His childhood. Some stories are found in extra-biblical literature. Some have even suggested that Jesus went to 'the coastlands' as a young man, traveling to England or the Orient to be educated. Those stories tell of an amazing young man who learned and taught among the priests and sages of other lands. But it was at His baptism that His ministry truly began. It was then when the man received everything He needed to be the covenant that was sent to God's people.

We often wonder why Jesus, who was perfect, had to be baptized. He was the incarnation of the living God: Christ, Messiah, Son, Emmanuel. He did not need a baptism of any sort, yet He went to John to receive a baptism for repentance. He had no sin to be forgiven or separation from the Creator which needed reconciliation. He was the living Word of God in flesh.

Yet, Jesus was also man. His baptism was far more than just an act of example for the rest of us. He went under the waters of the Jordan because through this act He identified completely with you and I, taking upon himself the very nature of man and all that goes with it while still remaining without sin. His baptism also defined His identity, as God reached out of the heavens to claim Jesus as His own Son. By going to John, Jesus demonstrated His humble obedience to the will and purpose of God. It was right for Jesus to be baptized, even if John thought it was wrong.

Finally, it was at that moment when the Holy Spirit washed over Jesus. Some of those stories of Jesus' childhood suggest that He had the spirit from the beginning. Perhaps He did, but at His baptism Jesus fully received the power to be the Christ, the savior of the world. He was fully man and the divine incarnate, but at that moment He was revealed as the One whom God sent to be the covenant for His people.

John was not willing to do as Jesus asked. “But John would have hindered him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” The English translation of this passage falls short of sharing the conversation between John and Jesus. It is not as if John said “no” once and then gave in, more likely John argued with Jesus. Finally Jesus answered, “Suffer it now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffereth him.” This is how God willed it to be, so John gave in to Jesus’ request.

That day at the Jordan, Jesus was claimed, anointed and sent into the world to do God’s work. The baptism of John was one of repentance, but Jesus made it something new. At the Jordan Jesus did not need to be forgiven, He was sinless. He did not need to be claimed, He was the Son of God. He did not need to be anointed; He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. He did not need to be sent, for His purpose was always to do the will of God. But at the Jordan, Jesus fulfilled all righteousness. He became the promise that we receive by faith through our own baptisms.

The new covenant was different than the old because, as we heard in the Old Testament lesson, it was given for everyone; it was given for the whole world, even those beyond the edge of the world. It was given for unknown people in unknown places, and at unknown times. It is a lasting covenant. He is a lasting covenant, given for us as He was given for them.

Peter learned the reality of Isaiah's prophecy, perhaps the hard way. At first Peter preached to those who adhered to the same religious ideas and practices as himself but then God spoke to him in a miraculous way. Peter had a vision that showed him that God does not choose people just because they fit in a certain category. He wanted to be offended because Cornelius was not a Jew, but he realized that God’s mercy is not given just for those we want to receive it. God loves all nations. Christ does not play favorites. The wisdom of heaven is impartial. Jesus Christ did not come for only a few people or a chosen race. God’s mercy reaches farther than our corner of the world. He came for our family and friends, our neighbors and even our enemies. He came for those people we like and for those who drive us crazy. He came to be the covenant that would transform the world.

We aren't like those who only saw the world through the limits of their understanding. We know the earth is a big place. We know that the water doesn't go on forever. We know that there is land on the other side. We also know that the gods who controlled small places were nothing but false gods and that the God we worship reached far beyond anything we know. He is God Almighty and is worthy of our praise. He grants His grace to the world, not just those we choose.

And so, we are called to ascribe to God the characteristics due to Him. He is glory and strength. His voice is over the waters, as it was over the waters in the beginning and at Jesus' baptism. He speaks and it is done. His voice is powerful and full of majesty.

The images in today's psalm are almost frightening. God's voice breaks the cedars. It shakes the wilderness. It causes the oaks to whirl and strips the forest bare. What must it been like to be at the Jordan when Jesus was baptized? The heavens opened up and they heard a voice from heaven. Did it bring the people to their knees in fear and awe?

His voice may make us tremble, but His love calls us to sing His praise. Through faith in Christ we enter into the Temple of God and join with the heavenly beings singing "GLORY!" The Almighty God has done everything necessary to reconcile us to Himself. He sent Jesus to finish the work of salvation that was begun even at the first sound of His voice. He sent Jesus to be the fulfillment to every promise. Through Jesus, He claims us as children, anoints us with the Holy Spirit and then sends us into the world beyond our own coastlines to share His grace with those who do not yet know Him.

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